bombshell review

Megyn Kelly was a minor Fox anchor before she shot to nationwide fame with the polarizing declaration that Jesus Christ was a white man. It wasn’t the most auspicious way to achieve national celebrity, but Kelly would soon take advantage of it by positioning herself as the conservative feminist opponent to then-presidential candidate Donald Trump. Despite being an avowed non-feminist, Megyn Kelly more often than not was positioned as some kind of conservative feminist figure — whether it was against Trump during the 2016 elections, or whether it was when Fox News was upended by the sexual assault allegations against its CEO, Roger Ailes. And Megyn Kelly finds herself positioned as a sort of feminist hero once again, this time by the fictionalization of the Fox News controversy, Bombshell.

Directed by Jay Roach (Trumbo), Bombshell seeks to tell the story of the Fox news controversy surrounding Roger Ailes, who resigned from his position as Fox News CEO in 2016 following a slew of sexual harassment lawsuits filed against him by several Fox News female anchors, from the perspective of the women. It’s a sticky subject considering the reputation Fox News has gained as a conservative propaganda machine that aims to stir up resentment against minorities and progressive issues. But on the other hand, it seems like a timely and powerful subject to tackle during the height of the #MeToo movement. In Roach’s hands, it ends up being about neither.

Roach appears to have attended the Adam McKay school of “serious comedy”: the first half of the film is packed full of shifting POVs and breakneck editing as each character gets her cheeky fourth-wall breaking introduction. Charlize Theron kicks things off as Megyn Kelly, looking nearly unrecognizable underneath subtle prosthetics that ever-so-slightly limit her facial expressions.

Kelly is the reluctant hero of the film, giving the audience a tour of the Fox News newsroom while making underhanded comments about Ailes’ iron grip on the entire operation. Theron’s Kelly is a fascinating anomaly at first: no-nonsense and unapologetic in her outlook, but given softer, human edges thanks to the recurring appearances of her family (with Mark Duplass appearing as her husband and sometimes-moral compass Douglas Brunt) and a loyal crew of minions that follow her around. Bombshell makes a gesture at acknowledging the real-life anchor’s outrageous views and calculating actions, but it’s when it tries to make her out to be the investigative feminist hero, launching her own investigation into potential victims of Ailes like she’s some kind of Woodward and Bernstein hybrid, that the film shows its failures to dig deeper into its flawed heroines.

The film gives a strange amount of real estate to Kelly, even going in depth into her now-famous feud with Trump, when it’s Nicole Kidman’s Gretchen Carlson who kicks off the real events in Bombshell. The film is bookended by Carlson filing her sexual harassment lawsuit against Ailes, which opens up a whole can of worms within the Fox News community. Lines are drawn and “Support Roger” T-shirts are passed out in the newsroom as women grapple with whether to come forward on Fox’s biggest open secret. Carlson, who filed her lawsuit after being fired from Fox News, finds herself a pariah from both her former coworkers and from regular people — in one scene, getting insulted in a grocery store in one of the few appearances by a “normal” person, and the film’s bizarrely half-hearted attempt to make us feel sympathy for the poor conservative lady. But Kidman (despite her distractingly large wigs) doesn’t need that scene to earn our sympathy: her entire meeting with her lawyers, as she lists the years of harassment she endured, is compelling enough, and Carlson’s general isolation is something the film doesn’t linger enough on. I wish we had gotten more time with Carlson instead of the film charting Kelly’s rise to fame, but that Bombshell seems to be caught up in recounting the viral moments over the human fallout happening behind the scenes.

It’s telling that perhaps the film’s greatest saving grace is an original character played by Margot Robbie, a producer who aspires to get on TV named Kayla, a character based on a number of women employed at Fox who spoke to filmmakers. Kayla comes from a family of Fox News worshippers, and herself enthusiastically espouses conservative values, but gets an added layer of complexity when she falls into an affair with her sardonic lesbian coworker Jess (Kate McKinnon, a delightful and refreshing comedic presence). Robbie and McKinnon are wonderful to watch together, and come out as the most sincere relationship of the film as well as the emotional throughline, after Jess abandons a distressed Kayla in the aftermath of her encounter with Ailes. The most grueling scene in the film takes place between Kayla and Ailes, as Bombshell imagines in excruciating detail exactly how Ailes abused his power. The film notably takes a break from its frantic editing to linger on this scene, which goes on forever. It is for sure the most impactful scene of the movie, though one that I’m still uncertain on whether it veers into exploitative.

John Lithgow is appropriately reprehensible as Ailes, painted as a paranoid, power-hungry abuser. While Ailes looms large throughout the film, his character actually doesn’t appear much — which makes sense, considering this film is supposedly about the women who he affected. While the interactions he has with several characters, especially Kelly and Rupert Murdoch and his sons (at which point the film suddenly turns into Succession), gives more nuance to this character, he remains very much the flat Big Bad of the piece.

Bombshell attempts to tap into the topical vein of powerful men being taken to task for sexual harassment or assault, but manages to do it with all the nuance of a Saturday Night Live sketch (the latter of which is made clear with a rotating door of appearances by characters like Bill O’Reilly, Bret Baier, Rudy Giulani, Jeanine Pirro, and others as if they were SNL impressions). It’s a surface-level approach to a complicated subject that softballs the entire controversy and miscasts its female anchors as feminist heroes.

/Film Rating: 5 out of 10

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